In a sign of the dueling views on Americans traveling to Cuba, on Monday U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio pushed for making it harder to get there, while U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor called for easing rules on travel to the island.
The debate about travel to Cuba, an issue that has simmered over the decades, flared again in recent days after the highly publicized trip there by singers Beyonce and Jay-Z, who were celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary. Rubio (R-FL), as well as other Cuban-Americans in Capitol Hill, criticized the trip and demanded to know how the couple had been able to go if U.S. regulations prohibit travel except in a few cases.
Castor, who returned over the weekend from what she termed a fact-finding trip to Cuba, told reporters that Cuban leader Raul Castro was making changes in the nation and that the United States should rethink its approach to travel and the embargo.
“Cuba is changing,” Castor, a Democrat from Florida, told reporters. “They are still a hard-core Communist nation, but they are embarking on market reforms in their economy that deserve encouragement.”
Rubio expressed anger over the trip by Beyonce and Jay-Z, calling it an opportunity that the Castro regime “seized on for propaganda purposes.”
They are just two of several U.S. lawmakers that have taken to social media and press releases to argue for or against travel to Cuba. U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, tweeted: "So, @beyonce and Jay-Z are in Cuba? Fine by me. Every American should have the right to travel there."
The star couple's visit was licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department, a source told Reuters. The wire news service said Beyoncé and Jay Z did not violate travel restrictions to Cuba, as some critics initially had suggested.
U.S. citizens are not allowed to travel to Cuba for mere tourism, though they can obtain licenses for academic, religious, journalistic or cultural exchange trips. The so-called people-to-people licenses were reinstated under the Obama administration and are designed to help promote civil society and independence from Cuban authorities.
But the U.S. government tightened requirements to obtain the licenses last year after Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, criticized the programs as cover-ups for tourism. Rubio derided groups that were granted licenses for activities such as salsa dancing and a trip to the Cuban Ministry of Culture.
The U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control issued new requirements last May that required travel operators to provide detailed information on every aspect of their trip.
Many Americans have tried to get around the rules, traveling to Cuba via other countries, such as Mexico and Canada. Often, Cuban immigration officials at airports do not stamp Americans’ passports to help them avoid problems once they return to the United States.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) April 7, 2013
Those who argue for allowing travel say that the more interaction Cuban citizens have with Americans and other outsiders, the more they may be motivated to fight for democratic reform. They also argue that additional tourism revenues flowing into the island will help put the average Cuban on more solid financial footing.
Rubio, and other opponents of easing travel to Cuba and easing the U.S. embargo against the island-nation, argue that visits by Americans do not benefit the people of the island as much as they line the pockets of the regime and further strengthen it.
They note that tourists from other parts of the world, such as Europe, Latin America and Canada, travel to Cuba and that despite that, the nation remains oppressive and Cubans struggle economically.
“U.S. law clearly bans tourism to Cuba by American citizens because it provides money to a cruel, repressive and murderous regime,” Rubio said in a statement. “ Since their inception, the Obama Administration’s ‘people to people’ cultural exchange programs have been abused by tourists who have no interest in the Cuban people’s freedom and either don’t realize or don’t care that they’re essentially funding the regime’s systematic trampling of people’s human rights.”
Castor vowed to reach out to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry about easing rules governing travel to Cuba.
“This should not be done with blinders on, however,” she said to reporters. “There are still very significant human rights challenges in Cuba. It is still, to many extents, a repressive regime that does not allow citizens to enjoy all of the human rights that we all enjoy. But after 50 years of an embargo and isolation that’s proved that it hasn’t worked, it’s time to try something new and refresh our relationship.”
Earlier this year, Flake, of Arizona, and fellow senator, Robert Menendez, a Democrat who is the son of Cuban immigrants, got into something of a tense exchange over travel to Cuba.
During then-Sen. John Kerry's confirmation hearing as Secetary of State, Flake said the United States should ease travel restrictions and quipped that the Castro brothers be subjected to spring breakers. Menendez made it known that he did not think Flake's comment was funny.
“To suggest that spring break is a form of torture to the Castro regime ... unfortunately, they are experts about torture, as is evidenced by the increasing brutal crackdown on peaceful democracy advocates on the island. Just in the last year, over 6,600 peaceful democracy advocates detained or arrested,” Menendez said.
The New Jersey senator noted how the Ladies in White, a peaceful dissident movement in Cuba, faced extreme crackdown for getting together at a church.
"And the result of that — these are individuals who are the relatives of former or current political prisoners in Castro's jails,” Menendez said. “The result is that more than 35 of the women in white were intercepted, beaten with belts, threatened [with] death by agents aiming guns at them, and temporarily arrested."
Elizabeth Llorente is the Politics Editor/Senior Reporter for Fox News Latino, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnewslatino.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente